Divorce can profoundly affect a child’s emotional development, so preparing the child for divorce is an important parenting issue. The child’s emotional well-being during and after the marital dissolution depends greatly on how the parents handle their divorce. Every family law case involving children will have unique challenges for the parents. To help ease the children’s transition into a new family relationship, we have some helpful parenting suggestions for couples who are contemplating a divorce.
Parenting Tip #1. Look at life through your child’s eyes. Try to understand the child’s perspective of what divorce represents.
Parenting Tip #2. Communicate to the child that he or she is not at fault for the parents’ break-up. Children worry that they are the reason for their parents’ divorce. Parents need to counter that misconception from the very beginning. Affirm that the child didn’t cause the divorce in the first conversation with the child. Reaffirm that fact in subsequent conversations with the child about the divorce. Young children are often worried that they did, said, or thought something bad which caused the bad result and, therefore, the divorce is their fault. Sometimes children have challenging moments and can put a strain on a marriage, even causing significant disharmony between the parents — the child who is aware of this may be self-blaming as a result.
Parenting Tip #3. Parents should attempt to create and maintain living conditions that enhance the child’s ability to deflect the negative effects of divorce while promoting positive child growth and development.
Parenting Tip #4. Providing frequent reassurances is important — that is, both parents will continue to love the child and neither parent will leave the child. Because children communicate through actions as often as with words, look for mood indicators in your child’s behavior. The child may be frightened that he or she will be abandoned and compensate by being exceedingly complaisant. The child could just as easily be combative or disobedient to establish that the parents love him or her no matter how bad the behavior. When parents divorce, children worry about whether they will continue to be loved, so it is very important for both parents to consistently display their love for the child by words and acts.
Parenting Tip #5. It may be very helpful to explain that a parent’s love for a child doesn’t go away with a divorce. That the parents’ bond with the child only grows and strengthens, no matter what occurred between Mom and Dad. Many children need to understand that the love parents have for their children is permanent, and different from the love the parents shared for each other.
Parenting Tip #6. The parents need to take care of their own emotional well-being, too, which may involve attending counseling or therapy sessions. When parents go through a divorce, they often carry a very heavy emotional burden. This burden can manifest itself in less than perfect behavior, such as a quick temper, over-reactions, depression, anxiety, mental distractions, or any combination thereof. Children learn by observation and experience. A parent’s behavior may be interpreted (or misinterpreted) by the youngster as the child’s failing, leading to feelings of abandonment, or of being unwanted and unloved. When the parents take care of their own emotional wellness and physical health, they serve the best interests of their children.
Parenting Tip #7. When moving out of the marital home, try minimizing the stress as much as possible for the child. There is nothing extraordinary about finding a new place to live when a divorce is imminent or pending. To the young child particularly, though, the move may increase feelings of separation from the other parent. Relocation out of the community that the child is familiar with, however, can result in great anxiety – the child’s whole world has changed. When possible, parents should consider the possibility of maintaining residences in the same community for the child’s well-being.
Parenting Tip #8. Give the child the time he or she needs to adjust and assimilate to the many changes in living arrangements and lifestyle. Children can be very resilient, but they still need time to adapt to changed circumstances. And they will adjust more readily if they feel in control. If they are overwhelmed by all the changes they face, then they may develop unhealthy ways to protect themselves in an effort to avoid more hurt and fear.
Parenting Tip #9. Be very cautious about integrating the child into a new ready-made family. Children that must accommodate their parent’s significant others and new step-siblings within the first year or two after the divorce are forced to deal with very complex situations. Such complexity may put your children at higher risk for problems with their emotional development.
Parenting Tip #10. Whenever the child is present, the parents should exhibit mutual respect, be caring of each other, and value each other as parents. If every discussion between the parents over the child ends antagonistically, then the child may believe he or she is at the core of the parents’ problems.
Parenting Tip #11. Value your continuing relationship with your child, and value the other parent’s continuing relationship with your child. As a part of their development, children should idealize both parents — parents are first understood to be wise and powerful. As the child matures, he or she gradually sees the parents are people with foibles and idiosyncrasies. When one parent belittles or alienates the other parent, the child may be conflicted and feel guilty or disloyal, or may have difficulty idealizing the denigrated parent.
Parenting Tip #12. Last, but not least, always work as a parenting team for the benefit of your children. Put your children’s best interests first, because during the divorce they may also be dealing with feelings of anxiety, confusion, anger, fear, grief, frustration, or guilt.
When parents remain focused on the needs of their children, they teach their children very important life-lessons about commitment, about love, and about overcoming obstacles when times are difficult. They are, after all, just children — they need both Mom and Dad to help them get through what can be a very tough time.